Skiing: Whistler in the wind

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The Independent Online
Who's getting the snow so far this season? From Whistler to Val d'Isere, Minty Clinch offers an overview.

Last week, I teetered on the brink of a couloir on Canada's Whistler Mountain and looked down on unseasonal rocks - definitely unwelcome, given the glut of early snow of the past few years. So what has happened to the skiing world?

The answer is El Nino, the flow of warm water that is mingling with the regular northbound cold current from the Antarctic somewhere off the coast of Peru. This happens every nine to 12 years, with unpredictable effects on the weather. So Whistler, which is relatively low and coastal, has found that the snow has turned into rain, and Taos, down in the New Mexican desert, has the best conditions in North America. In California, Mammoth, Heavenly and Squaw Valley are prospering, while Colorado and Utah are still struggling to get the season under way.

Even with two weeks to go until Christmas, Whistler was buzzing with anticipation - and with Japanese, Swedes, Germans and Brits snapping up low-cost, pre-season packages. Condo blocks were springing up all over, and the restaurants wouldn't be outclassed in the Italian or French Alps.

The commercial attitude was reflected in the limited slopes open to bargain- hunters: the best terrain off the Peak Chair on Whistler Mountain was zealously kept untracked for the yuletide crowds. With top-up snow falling over the weekend - "big, big flakes" - conditions are expected to be perfect by the time they arrive.

In the British Columbian interior, Nino is a four-letter word. A five- hour north-easterly drive away from Whistler at Sun Peaks - run by Canada's ex-Olympic champion, Nancy Greene - there's a real snow crisis with a bare minimum of runs open (and those only because of diligent snow-making). Over the weekend, Nancy's husband, Al Raine, kept one eye on the local television weather station and the other on the suspiciously bright western horizon, but his vigilance brought no pay-off. The rest of British Columbia and Alberta were in even more dire straits, with several resorts yet to open.

On this side of the Atlantic, the ripple of anticipation triggered by the strong pound turned to a rip tide over the weekend as the first major snowfalls hit the Alps. Here, too, the hit was a reversal of recent form, with Austria, eastern Switzerland and eastern Italy winners, while the western Alps are making do with less than expected.

British interest in the top Arlberg resort is stronger than ever, especially as Mark Warner has taken advantage of new property regulations resulting from Austrian membership of the European Union to buy the Schweizerhof Hotel.

On the wrong side of the east-west divide, it's a case of cautious optimism in the teeth of bitter cold and occasional flurries of snow. However, there is some consolation in the prospect of brisk British trading, fuelled by the favourable exchange rate. In the Bernese Oberland, Murren has an overall snow cover of 40cm, enough to make the village chocolate-box pretty but nowhere near enough to cover the rocks on the Schilthom. Nevertheless Annelis Stahli, proprietor of the British-driven Eiger Hotel, expects a record 130 guests for dinner on New Year's Eve.

Argentiere had the first fatal avalanche of the season last week, but the Chamonix valley is generally short of snow. The town itself is more buoyant than it's been for ages, says Colleen Guerand, of the Collineige chalet company. "There's a nice feeling about the place," she says, "with new Swedish and American snowboarding shops and full bars and restaurants - so all we need is a good dump and we're ready to go."

And what of Val d'Isere, the home from home for aspiring upper-class Britons? Conditions are not the best ever, but connections with Tignes are up and everyone is hopeful. "What's to whinge about when the skiing is open and things cost the same as or even less than at home?" asks Richard Finlay, secure in the knowledge that his chalets are full to bursting until Twelfth Night. In any case, who's counting centimetres when Anglo- aware restaurateurs are selling roast rib on the bone?

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